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by Michael Bowen & r & & r & The Exonerated & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hen we heard the news about DNA evidence overturning death sentences, most of us clucked our tongues and murmured regrets. But Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen went out and interviewed the ex-cons who'd suddenly been set free. Then, being actors, they turned their research into a documentary play. When Court TV picked up the project, they added a few cinematic tricks (ghostlike conversation partners flitting on and off the screen, some slo-mo and lighting effects) to create a filmed play.


Which, at least for the first half of The Exonerated, is the problem. This is a talking-heads movie: Nearly every shot is a close-up, with just a face, a black background, the camera moving only slightly. The intent may have been to use a low-key presentation to set off the intensity of the material, which includes horrific details of crime scenes, prison rapes and malfunctioning electric chairs.


But why didn't the playwrights and screenwriters just film a regular documentary instead? These nightmares really happened: Every word, we're told, is taken verbatim from court transcripts, confessions, letters. People lost 16 years, 22 years of their lives just because they came across the wrong bunch of mouth-breathing hillbillies or callous cops. But the entire time, we know that's Susan Sarandon up there, that's Brian Dennehy. After the cameras are turned off, they're not going back into lockup.


Yet when the film turns its focus toward its stories of exoneration, it soars. The crosscutting among six victims' accounts begins to make sense, because several of them fought bitterness by developing a simple spirituality. For example, Danny Glover's character is initially enough of a dim bulb to think that making a quick confession "might help move the process along." While in prison, though, he develops a simple faith that's nicely interwoven with Delroy Lindo's prisonhouse philosophizing. At first, Aidan Quinn subtly conveys the slow-witted exasperation of a petty rebel who's falsely accused of a rape-murder. In the film's shattering conclusion, however, Quinn's real-life victim of injustice -- convicted on flimsy grounds, then brutalized in prison -- is shown with coat and tie, wife and child, a new life. By its shattering conclusion, The Exonerated finally makes us feel sick about the unfairness of American injustice. (Rated R)